Finding the best plasma TV
LED TVs and plasma TVs are both thin and wall mountable, but LED sets -- actually LCD TVs with LED backlights -- have become the preferred choice of most consumers. For more information on the best-reviewed LED TVs, see our separate report.
There are many reasons why LED sets sit at the top of the HDTV hill. For one thing, they produce brighter images than plasma TVs, so they look better in well-lit rooms because blacks won't wash out. Plasma screens also tend to be highly reflective, although changes in technology and design have resulted in LED screens that are just as mirrorlike as classic plasma screens, and higher-end plasma sets that are as good at hiding glare as the best LED TVs. Also, at least one plasma TV (from Samsung) is earning tons of kudos for its very un-plasma-like brightness levels, making it worth considering by many who otherwise could not give plasma another look.
Another selling point is that LED TVs are available in a wider range of screen sizes. Plasma TVs as small as 42 inches are still being sold, but most fall between 50 and 65 inches. If you want a smaller set, say, 32 inches, for a small living room or a large bedroom or dorm room, LED is your only choice. Likewise, if you don't want a home-theater projector, LED is the only way to get a wall-sized screen at a somewhat reasonable price. Finally, LED technology allows for sets with heretofore impossibly thin profiles, with the result that TVs sometimes look as good when they're off as when they are on.
Plasma technology has a few notable downsides, as well. Burn-in -- where the shadow of a static image can be permanently seen on the screen -- is no longer a major concern (though it can happen if the set is misused). More prevalent is something called temporary image retention, where a shadow from a static image takes time to fade from view. It isn't permanent, however, and most sets now include technology to speed the process of wiping away temporary shadows. Still, if you tend to watch channels with sports, stock or news crawlers, you might still want to look to a TV with different technology.
Finally, there's the issue of power consumption. While other household appliances consume even more, most plasma TVs are electricity guzzlers compared to LED sets. Generally, the bigger the screen, the higher the power drain, and only some smaller plasma sets are economical enough to be Energy Star qualified. Most LED sets -- in all but the very biggest screen sizes -- earn that distinction.
So why are we still talking about plasma TV, and why do a few companies still manufacture them? The answer is terrific picture quality. Few LED sets can match plasma technology when it comes to producing deep, rich black levels and the ability to show the finest details in shadows. Even cheap plasma TVs routinely outperform mainstream LED TVs in that regard. The catch, as noted above, is that most plasma sets have limited brightness, so you need a room where light levels can be well controlled to get the full impact of those great blacks.
Plasma TVs have other advantages. While viewing angles -- how far you can sit off dead center and still see a quality image -- of LED sets are often narrow, plasma TVs offer very wide viewing angles, making them great for large families or small gatherings. LED TVs also often suffer from poor uniformity, where different parts of the screen look brighter, which is rarely an issue for plasma TVs. Finally, plasma TVs do a great job of handling fast motion, and don't need to resort to an increased refresh rate to do so.
Once you decide that a plasma TV is right for you and how you like to watch TV, it's time to pick the best model based on its performance, features and price. Top-notch expert reviews look at performance both on a test bench and when watching real program material like movies. They also evaluate how well features such as Internet streaming and 3D perform, and if they're worth their additional cost compared to plasma TVs with fewer extras.
User reviews are also important. Although owners typically don't have the breadth of experience in pitting one plasma TV against another, they may have more intimate knowledge of the set in question, and how it meets or misses their expectations -- both when new and over time. We rely on both expert and user opinions in reporting on the current crop of plasma TVs.